MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

No need to panic, but Nationals' bats must step up

Strong pitching should enable Washington to get in gear when offense heats up

No need to panic, but Nationals' bats must step up

MIAMI -- The team that is generally acknowledged to have baseball's best pitching staff has started the 2015 season 7-11.

More than anything else, this is an illustration that the other half of the game, even in this era of increased pitching dominance, still holds more than a hint of significance. The Washington Nationals have not been succeeding in the run-production portion of the sport.

It is easy to say that the Nationals are better than 7-11. This is very much the team that had the National League's best record in two of the past three seasons and then added the leading free-agent pitcher on the market, Max Scherzer.

Still, the Nationals lost their fourth straight game Saturday, this one 8-0 to the Miami Marlins. The two clubs are now tied in the NL East, seven games behind the division-leading Mets. Although it is far too early for intense standings-watching, this is an interesting development because four games ago, the Nats led the Marlins by four games.

The Saturday loss was unusual because the Nationals gave up eight runs. Nine of their 11 losses have been by three runs or fewer. This is an accurate measurement of the fact that their pitching has kept them in games.

This is why, even while their record is nothing like the Nats would expect, their situation is miles away from truly troubling.

"I think we're close," Nationals manager Matt Williams said Saturday. "Our starting pitching has been really effective. They're keeping us in games. We've had opportunities [to score]. We haven't come through as often as we'd like, but that will happen."

"The intent is there," veteran outfielder Jayson Werth said. "We come in here every day, ready to go. We're going through a tough stretch right now, but it'll turn. It always does."

Saturday's pitching matchup looked like a good day at the office for the Nats, who had Stephen Strasburg going against Miami's Tom Koehler. But this is why the games must be played. Strasburg was merely not bad (four earned runs over six innings). Koehler was exceptionally good (7 1/3 shutout innings). The Marlins turned this into a different kind of contest with a two-homer, four-run eighth inning against reliever Rafael Martin.

The Nationals managed just one marginal threat against Koehler -- a two-on, two-out situation in the sixth. Ryan Zimmerman hit a shot up the middle, but Miami second baseman Dee Gordon, with a diving backhanded stop, turned an RBI single into a force at second.

"The key for us is just to grind, that's what we have to keep doing. [Friday night] is an example," Williams said, referring to the 3-2 loss. "We had opportunities, but it didn't happen necessarily for us. You can look at all those things, but the bottom line is we just have to grind."

The answer to this sort of thing, beyond the continued grinding, could also be a dose of the Nats recalling who they are and how good they can be.

"We've got to keep on pushing, keep on grinding," Strasburg said. "We're just coming through a stretch where you don't get any breaks. I think we've got to go out there and just remember who we are, and stick together and just keep playing hard.

"First and foremost, it is early. I think we just need to not worry about it. I like the chemistry we have in this clubhouse. We've just got to stick together and keep pulling for each other."

And maybe hit more often, particularly in clutch situations. Entering Saturday, the Nationals ranked third in the NL in team ERA, which was fine. But they were 10th in runs scored, which was not.

There are excuses available. The Nats opened the season with two outfielders (Denard Span and Werth) and their third baseman (Anthony Rendon) on the disabled list. Span and Werth have returned. Rendon is on a rehab assignment, coming back from a sprained knee ligament. There is no overstating the value of Rendon to Washington's lineup.

When Rendon is in the lineup, Williams says: "It stretches us, it makes us deeper, all of those natural things that happen. The problem -- I would not anticipate Anthony coming back being full Anthony. Any time you have that extended layoff, you're not 'full' as you would be after six weeks of Spring Training. But it'll certainly be nice to have him back. He's an integral part of our lineup. He extends our lineup, gives us great at-bats, does a lot during the course of a game [to drive up pitch counts]. Those things help. He's a vital part. We're anxious to get him back, but we have to be careful."

No one seriously disputes the notion that the Nationals are much, much better than 7-11. The key now would be to start playing much, much better than 7-11.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.